Chocolates For Breakfast, Pamela Moore’s 1956 novel, is being reissued this summer by Harper Perennial, thanks to the determination of her son Kevin Kanarek. Moore’s book is charming, substantive, and smart, and I’m quite certain that if I’d first read it at sixteen, it would have been an epic favorite. The narcissistic parents, the fancy schools, the frustrating peers, the latent lesbianism, the grasping heterosexuality, the glamorous cities; it’s a wonderful novel about a fiercely funny, fucked-up, no-bullshit kind of girl. But who can say how it might read if Moore had not, in 1964, shot herself in the head, while nine-month-old Kevin did god knows what in the next room? “In The Next Room” is the title of Kevin’s afterword, which, included in the reissued paperback, is alone worth the price of admission.
The Rumpus: The question of literature is how do people get through their lives? When a writer kills herself, her work takes on a new ending. Sometimes this makes us, perversely, more likely to admire her: doom is heavy with romance and we’re all fascinated by extremity. And now, look: her work can be read almost as a road map leading to the moment she stuck her head in an oven or leapt from the window or put the gun in her mouth. Turns out she couldn’t get through her life after all.
Kevin Kanarek: I think the temptation to read backwards from her ending is hard to resist: we can admire the writer more for it, or admire her less. But it’s also a logical fallacy, right? Seeing things as predestined for some arbitrary end which they happened to fall or evolve into.
One of the few books to mention Pamela Moore after her death was a reminiscence by the critic Roland Jaccard. His memoir is actually about his friendship with the philosopher Emil Cioran, but it begins:
I was thinking of Pamela Moore. I was probably the only one still thinking about her. French critics had called her “the American Françoise Sagan.” She had enjoyed an ephemeral glory and then killed herself with a shotgun, like Hemingway, about whom she had been writing a book. Françoise Sagan, for her part, decided to stick around. Which is rarely the wiser choice.
The whole chapter goes on in that vein, idealizing Pamela and another young suicide, but in a way that I find trivializing. It’s a cynical kind of sentimentality—very male, very European of that era. My father used to talk the same way, and he was from Poland.
For the record, Pamela mentioned Hemingway in her diaries but wasn’t writing a book about him. Also, Hemingway chose a 12-gauge shotgun, but Pamela used a .22 rifle. Everyone wants to color the story based on their agenda, but let’s at least try to get the details straight first.
The Rumpus: The recent VICE Magazine female writer suicide fashion spread inspired a lot of outrage. The models-playing-writers were beautifully dressed and coiffed, adorably vacant, at death’s door. Yes, it was in poor taste. Yes, it was stupid. Suicide is many things, but pretty ain’t the fuck one of them. VICE quickly took the thing offline and apologized (badly), but not before we all got our collective self-righteous on. I failed to be duly outraged by the VICE spread. Surprised, sure, but mostly unimpressed.
To be honest, Harper Perennial’s cover design for the Chocolates reissue is so astoundingly banal and unrepresentative it actually offended me far above and beyond VICE Magazine’s juvenile hijinks. But anyway, whatever: a glossy magazine operating in poor taste? Knock me over with a feather.
Kanarek: For me, the VICE fashion spread exemplified (without exploring) the viewpoint that women writers—women writers who kill themselves—are somehow perpetually on display, or even on trial. They must answer for their art and their final act against the world and their husbands and children, born and unborn. In that courtroom, Hemingway gets off without any jail time. After all, his royalties provided both alimony and child support, so what more could you ask?
Rumpus: Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, et. al.: I’d bet good money no one at VICE ever read two words any of those women wrote. And what a missed opportunity: where was Pamela Moore? Historically speaking, there aren’t many notable female writers; a lot of those assured a place in the canon tend to have met terrible ends by their own hands. Coincidence? A long-suffering writer I know likes to joke that if she does indeed off herself at some point, “at least they might rediscover my work.”
Kanarek: Well, my first reaction seeing the VICE thing was, I was relieved that Pamela wasn’t famous enough to be included. Who would have played her? Zooey Deschanel? Winona Ryder? Anyone I’d want to see cast for the part probably wouldn’t take such a gig.
Did I ever tell you about the obscenity trial of Pamela’s Italian publisher? From 1960 to 1964, Alberto Mondadori stood trial for publishing translations of Pamela’s books (as well as those of Kerouac and D.H. Lawrence). In October of 1964, Mondadori was acquitted. Apparently Pamela’s suicide had been cited as evidence for the defense, along the lines of “she was a troubled person, therefore a serious artist, therefore her books are art, ipso facto not obscene.” In Pamela’s last moments she had written about Catholicism and her fear of Hell, and a month later here’s the Pope (well, an Italian court backing up the Church in protecting the comune senso del pudore), saying, “Okay, you kill yourself, you’re going to Hell, but at least you are a true artist.” Some weird logic in that to be sure. Once it was no longer banned, her book sold over 400,000 copies in Italy.
Rumpus: I worked on a suicide hotline for a few years, and among the “last resorts” we were trained to employ if a caller seemed unmoved by the simple act of unburdening him or herself was to describe in detail what his or her preferred method would look like. Just the physical reality of it. It’s not so super-romantic in those terms. You have to be fairly beyond help. The only person who ever called our noble little hotline, by the way, was this guy we nicknamed “Mr. Busy,” for the way he’d always ask whether we were busy. No, we always assured him, we were not busy. He’d hang up if a male answered the call. Some of us felt uncomfortable and refused to talk to him. Some of us didn’t mind. We understood him to be masturbating but still, we reassured him we were not busy. It was a kind of help we could provide, and anyway, like I said: no one else ever called us.
Kanarek: An acquaintance of mine in New York, drunk, once said that he was considering killing himself, and asked me how would I feel about it if he did? Well, come to think of it, I felt in that moment as if a dog were humping my leg. It was hard to be friends with him after that. But it had more to do with him making a spectacle of it, and forcing me to participate.
About two years ago I started meeting with people who had known my mother, re-reading her books, sifting through her diaries and letters and manuscripts. Everyone I spoke with said that she was not giving out any obvious signs that she was thinking of killing herself, or even that she was particularly unhappy; she just seemed exhausted.
Around the time I started immersing myself in these questions, I had a series of dreams in which Pamela showed up, which had hardly ever happened before or, for that matter, since. Some of them were heartwarming and encouraging. Some were completely surreal: a scarab becomes a beautiful woman becomes an old crone, but in the dreams and immediately on waking up I know it’s her. In one of them, I’m speaking with her on the lawn of some sanitarium somewhere, and she’s very beautiful, but I realize she’s also somehow very off, like certain topics are okay, but other topics you want to avoid because there’s something scary-crazy going on. I’ve felt that fear in the presence of crazy. At the core I think it’s the fear of contagion. Or, that an affliction (the germ of which is already inside you) will be triggered if you’re exposed to the full-blown expression of it.
Rumpus: You know those people who say “I would never kill myself; what a horrible and selfish thing to do”? People say this sort of thing all the time. People who have no idea what it’s like to live in total darkness. And it’s like, oh, there’s a part of you that is capable of going there, that far down into darkness, and you just refuse to engage with it. The rest of us just shake our heads at the thought of killing ourselves: we understand all too well how depressed you’d have to be.
Kanarek: I’d guess that Pamela’s was partly honor suicide—she felt she had failed her art—partly an act of aggression directed at my father, and then mostly the deadly hormonal/serotonin shitstorm that makes ending your life look like the only conceivable option. If you haven’t been there, you can’t imagine it.
Rumpus: It’s difficult to read Chocolates For Breakfast without seeing Pamela’s suicide in the margins. The thousand-and-one wrong turns that led to it. All the narcissistic/absent/idiotic adults who failed that young girl. Suicide doesn’t confer nobility, it’s just deeply sad forever and ever. Would I be interested in Pamela Moore if she were alive and well and painting hobby landscapes in Taos? It doesn’t matter; she’s not.
Kanarek: Yes, in her case, the more I find out about her, the more it looks like a train plunging straight down a mountain. It’s not just one wrong turn, it’s thousands.
As a kid, I loved ghost stories, as a lot of kids do. Also, cemeteries. It was this feeling that they were familiar places, like going to visit grandma’s house. I have family there! Whether you believe in ghost stories, or ancestor worship, or see all this as the subconscious or just wishful thinking, it almost doesn’t matter. But I’m predisposed to believe that any ending is an arbitrary point you’ve chosen somewhere along a squiggly line. There is a continued dialogue you can have with the dead, reading their writing or meeting people who knew them, seeing how their life reverberates after they’re gone.
When my father was dying, I was with him those last weeks, being very good-humored and stoical and talking with him about Pamela and reading with him from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Soon after he died, however, I came down with a fever, in his house in Albany, a town where I didn’t know anyone, and a friend who was visiting New York wound up taking care of me. I found myself recapitulating the experience of my father’s death, but this time from his perspective. And I have to say that was much scarier.
HarperCollins offered to reissue the book just a few months after that. My first thought was to tell my father the good news. Then I remembered he was dead. Then I thought he had somehow made this good news possible, by finally relaxing his grip on Pamela’s legacy. When I received the first printed copy of the reissue, I imagined my father very happy and proud. His favorite photo of her from his bedside dresser is now the new author photo. He would have turned to the back, curious and a little apprehensive, to read the essays. Then it occurred to me that this might be the first time he would learn of his own death. I worried how he might take the news.
Rumpus: I can’t stop thinking about her nine-month-old son. You, Kevin, in the next room. I relate to her, and fear for her, and feel bizarrely responsible for that baby. Remember when we had lunch and I blurted, “She loved you, you know”? Did that skeeve you out?
Kanarek: No, it didn’t. Not at all. People have described to me the unbearable crushing weight of postpartum depression, which I’ll never be able to fathom, but sometimes I get a glimpse of it, and I see that I wasn’t abandoned, I was spared.
When I wonder what I was doing in the next room, I was probably sleeping. I can sleep through anything. If I were to posit something more lofty, I’d say I was busy unconsciously mapping out a life plan that would enable me to understand my mother enough to forgive her (since forgiveness without understanding is just schmaltz), without actually following in her footsteps. A plan which required me to stay more or less stoned up to the age of forty.
Back to the Pamela dreams: one of them in particular is so heartwarming and convivial, it might allay some of your concerns about what the hell was happening in the next room. We’re high up in an Alpine meadow. It’s a family reunion and this large extended family has conspired to bring the two of us together on a hike. A kind of surprise party. Pamela is there, looking very lovely and mischievous. She’s pointing to a village which is just across a ridge from the village I’ve hiked up from. She’s saying, “Look, that’s where I’ve been this whole time, just one village over.” And from where we’re standing, the distance between these two villages is trivial. So you could read backward from that ending too, if you like.
Elisa Albert will be reading from Pamela Moore’s Chocolates For Breakfast along with Emma Straub, Alexander Chee, Rachel Syme, and others at its re-release party at Housing Works Books, in New York on July 11th, at 7 pm. Free and open to the public.